Raised on rowing by Ridley’s best, Jim Butterfield ’70 knows how sport can inspire, support and bring people together. Now, the Bermudian businessman shares how he keeps moving forward—and is giving back to his community.
Jim Butterfield was on the soccer field when Coach Mark Gallop came up and asked if he knew how to row. “I’d only seen rowing in the movies,” Jim remembers. “I knew how to row a dingy; I knew how to row a punt—I had no idea he was talking about something that was 63-feet long. But I fell in love with it right away.”
“I’d only seen rowing in the movies. I knew how to row a dingy; I knew how to row a punt—I had no idea he was talking about something that was 63-feet long. But I fell in love with it right away.”
Until Mark came to Ridley, rowing hadn’t been taken all that seriously. The Englishman had arrived just two years prior and had been busy overhauling the school’s rowing programme. Having rowed at both Hampton School and Cambridge University, Mark knew exactly what a competitive rowing programme entailed.
“The guys would get on a bus and go into Port Dalhousie. One group would go off and have some cigarettes and the others would row, and then they’d switch off,” Jim explains. “Then Mark came in and said, ‘The bus is being sold. If you want to row, you’ll need to buy a bicycle and you’ll need to ride down to the rowing shed and ride back. And don’t be late for dinner.’ Suddenly rowing was demanding.”
As part of his vision, Mark recruited local Olympic oarsman, Neil Campbell who, at the time, was living in nearby Vineland. “You’re a Ridley boy,” Mark entreated the athlete. “We’ve got rowing now. Would you come and coach us?” The rest, as they say, is history. Between Mark and Neil, what had once been a casual pastime soon became a big deal on campus, a challenging sport to which students aspired.
And, Jim quickly became one of them. He had come to Ridley in 1962 when he was just 12 years-old, fresh from Hamilton, Bermuda and following his older brother, George ’57. Jim’s brother, Tom, who was just slightly older than he, was sent to St. Andrew’s College—there was room for only one new Butterfield at Ridley that year, and their parents decided that Jim would benefit from having George nearby.
“I wrote six letters home that first week,” Jim laughs, looking back. “It was a bit shocking and I couldn’t just jump on a train and head back to Oakville or Toronto; I was homesick.”
But Jim soon settled into school, making friends and exploring the athletic opportunities he hadn’t had back home. And he was careful to heed George’s advice. “You’re from Bermuda—they’re going to want to put you in the pool,” he’d warned. “Don’t get in that pool! Take up ice hockey.”
So, Jim tried it all, from soccer to cross country to track and field—politely passing on cricket and football—and, as his brother had suggested, hitting the ice. “I loved ice hockey,” he smiles. “We used to break into the rink at two or three o’clock in the morning and skate until the night watchman kicked us out and sent us back to bed.”
Jim served on Ridley’s Board of Governors for 10 years and was active in the Bermuda community, fundraising, working to connect and rally Ridleians for the Old Boys meeting each year and organizing accommodations for the school’s visits to Bermuda.
But when he got to Upper School and started rowing, the sport took over. “We accomplished a lot, and would have died on our swords for Neil Campbell,” Jim remembers fondly, then the smallest of Ridley’s heavy eight at five-foot-ten. “He was an amazing coach and mentor, an idol for most of us. He would get out of the coach boat and into the heavy eight with us; he’d train with our crew after training with his own Olympic squad, then would show up perspiring in his track suit and say, ‘Ok, let’s get started.’”
Theirs was the first crew to go to Washington, D.C., the first to go to The Royal Henley. Each meet was a success—and their competitors were taking notice. Soon, Ridley became a powerful player in the high school rowing arena, their oarsmen the ones to look out for. Jim went on to win the Neil Campbell Oarsman of the Year.
“Our football coach, Reverend Hunt, used to say to us, ‘Keep your head up and keep your feet going. It was good advice.”
After Prize Day, Jim enrolled in Business Administration at Boston’s Northeastern University, a school known for its strong rowing programme. He ended up rowing in a single, due to his height, and became friends with classmate, Jim Dietz, who was the number one U.S. oarsman at the time. “He became a bit of a coach and mentor,” recounts Jim. “I would just do what he told me to do. We rowed together prior to Munich and he said, ‘Jim, I’m trying to get to the finals’—so I knew where I was going to end up.”
Jim represented Bermuda in the Men’s Single Sculls at the Munich Olympics in 1972—the only Bermudian ever to do so. That same season, he’d casually ‘popped in’ to run the Boston Marathon, showing up without any training or even a registration number. Because he was in such great shape, he ran the race in an impressive three hours, then spent the afternoon training and rowing.
“When I got back to my apartment that evening, I called Ed Pilgrim, Ridley’s headmaster,” Jim shares. “He’d once told us these stories from when he’d ran the Boston Marathon and it had struck me as something that would be cool to do one day. That always stayed with me.”
When Jim returned to Bermuda, its windy weather and big tides soon made it clear that it wasn’t a place to row. Recognizing he’d need to pivot, Jim sent his rowing shell back to Boston and took up cycling, hoping to qualify for the Olympics in Montreal. However, during a rather disappointing trial in North Carolina, he realized that, without a team, he didn’t have a prayer. “I was an individual in a team sport,” he shrugs. “It wasn’t going to happen.”
Debbie would go on to place fourth in the 1985 Boston Marathon and participated in the U.S. Olympic trials. She’s run many impressive races and has become an inspirational figure in distance running, helping to bring women into the sport.
It was then that Jim took up running seriously, training for marathons with his wife, Debbie—who’s an athletic powerhouse in her own right. Back when Debbie had first announced she was going to take up marathon running, they’d laughed. But, inspired by the runners she’d seen in Boston, she soon proved her doubters wrong, training every morning before work. She would go on to place fourth in the 1985 Boston Marathon and participated in the U.S. Olympic trials. Debbie has since run many impressive races and has become an inspirational figure in distance running, helping to bring women into the sport.
It was 1976 when the pair moved back to Bermuda; they enjoyed road running as a couple and understood the sacrifices required to excel. An early morning or late for dinner was easily forgiven, as each pushed themselves to get their miles in for the day.
“Debbie and I were among the first white people doing any sort of road running. It just wasn’t done. People would see us running down the road and yell, ‘Hey! Are you late? Do you need a lift?”
However, their training was proving to push cultural boundaries as well. Bermuda is a friendly, yet conservative place, with a history of slavery and segregation of which its citizens are mindful. In the late seventies, sport was still quite segregated—soccer and cricket were for black athletes and fans, while sailing was for the white population. Road running was one of the ways this divide was bridged, and today sports in Bermuda is very much integrated.
Jim and Debbie earned spots on the board of the Bermuda Track & Field Association and the Butterfields soon became synonymous with running; they were among a group that started the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Club. In the years that followed, Jim ran the Boston, Deluth, New York and London marathons, and competed at the Commonwealth Games.
“[The Hawaiian Ironman] was the result of a guy I knew giving me a magazine. He said, ‘Jim, you’ve gotta read this; these guys are sick. But I didn’t think they were sick—I thought, this sounds so cool, and I started training in earnest.”
As back trouble forced him to incorporate more swimming and cycling into his routine, Jim brought triathlon to Bermuda; he was organizing races as far back as 1979. In 1981, Jim finished the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon in seventh place.
In 1999, when Jim turned 50, he cycled 100 miles a day from Irvine, California to Boston, Massachusetts to raise money for P.A.L.S., a cancer care centre in Bermuda. It took him 30 days. Seven years later, he was inducted into the Bermuda Sports Hall of Fame.
Since Jim’s semi-retirement in 2018, Spencer runs Butterfield & Vallis, the family’s fourth-generation food import business. The company was founded in 1918 by Jim’s grandfather, H. St. George Butterfield.
That passion for sports runs in the family: his wife, daughter-in-law, and niece have all competed on the international sports stage, and Jim’s sons are both highly athletic. 38-year-old Tyler is based in Colorado and is a professional triathlete, finishing seventh and then fifth in Hawaii. Spencer, now 40, competes in triathlons in his downtime, and heliskis, wakeboards, and surfs. Since Jim’s semi-retirement in 2018, Spencer runs Butterfield & Vallis, the family’s fourth-generation food import business. The company was founded in 1918 by Jim’s grandfather, H. St. George Butterfield.
That passion for sports runs in the family: his wife, daughter-in-law, and niece have all competed on the international sports stage, and Jim’s sons are both highly athletic.
For Jim, who has worked there for more than forty years, stepping back has offered him the perfect opportunity to focus on philanthropic endeavours. It seems that generosity also runs in the family—and Jim comes by it honestly. His grandfather awarded scholarships to four different schools in Bermuda as early as the 1930s.
It’s clear Jim’s service and contributions mean a lot to those around him. He’s widely recognized as a generous leader in the community, who works to improve the social, economic and environmental conditions of his country. He was honoured by the Association of Fundraising Professionals in 2015.
Jim is modest when speaking about it, however. In a small place like Bermuda, he reasons, it’s easy to see where the need is, and it’s often simple to resolve—whether that means replacing the church’s appliances so they can feed those who need a little help, or rebuilding the living conditions at the Salvation Army—A project Jim completed with fellow Ridleian, Kirk Kitson ’58). Jim is also on the board of the Sloop Foundation—a cause close to his heart that sends at-risk youth out to sea for a week on board a hundred-foot ‘floating classroom.’
“As I’ve gotten older, it feels good to be able to give back, to participate. I look at those Houses—Merritt House and Gooderham House—and I think about those Old Ridleians who gave to the bricks and mortar so that people like us could attend Ridley, could create those great memories and friendships.”
Speaking with this Old Ridleian, it’s clear how sport can serve one’s life in so many positive ways: breaking down barriers, bridging communities and bringing a family closer together. And, as time goes on and goals change, the athlete’s journey might shift, might even go from land to sea and back again—but that demand for excellence, that drive to meet a challenge, never does quite fade.
“Our football coach, Reverend Hunt, used to say to us, ‘Keep your head up and keep your feet going,’” Jim says good-naturedly, as we finish our conversation. It’s a beautiful sunny day in Bermuda, and he’s heading out for a bike ride around the island. “It was good advice.”
This article was printed in the latest issue of Tiger magazine. Learn about our alumni, get community updates and find out where Ridley is heading next! Read more from the Spring 2021 issue.